By Kathleen Gray
Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) From “speed dating” to film screenings, political candidates are finding new ways to connect with voters.
Detroit Free Press
Joe McCauley approached the event at Northville High School last month like any anxious suitor looking for his political soul mate.
Who would he connect with? Who would be best on their feet, answering the unscripted questions thrown their way?
“I was quite pleasantly surprised” by the stable of candidates, said the Northville Township retired mailman. “This is something where all of them are here and you get to know them in a more personal way.”
Welcome to candidate “speed dating,” a new phenomenon this election cycle where those seeking elective office sit in the midst of a circle of up to 10 voters, who, when a whistle sounds every 15 minutes, move from circle to circle trying to get a sense of the people who might represent them in Lansing or Washington D.C.
The event sponsored by the Northville Democratic Club had the feel of a speed dating party. More than a dozen candidates running at all levels of government, including all six Democrats running in the 11th Congressional District, filled the room and patiently waited to find their political mates.
“What makes you better than the rest of the people here?” one woman asked 11th District congressional candidate Suneel Gupta, a Livonia Democrat, who replied that he is the only one with a background in computer programming.
Another asked Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shri Thanedar, “What’s your spiritual background?” — to which the candidate responded that he was raised Hindu.
“I realized early on that everybody was doing the same thing and we had to come up with something different,” said Lori Goldman, one of the founding members of Fems for Dems, a women’s group that formed in the months after the election of Republican Donald Trump as president and has since grown to 900 members, mostly in metro Detroit.
Fems for Dems has had several candidate speed dating events and helped the Northville Democratic Club organize its event last month.
It was a shift in political activism for the small Wayne County-based club, which was started by a couple of women when John Kerry was running for president in 2004.
“They went around writing down addresses of homes with John Kerry signs and invited them to a barbecue,” said Lisa DiRado, the president of the Northville club. “We’ve grown since then. When I started in 2008, there may have been about 80 members and now we have 408 paid members.”
The speed dating represented an outside-the-box idea that helped both voters and candidates.
“We just wanted to give people in the area access to the candidates,” DiRado said. “We’re letting them know who we are as Democrats and asking them to support our values.”
After 90 minutes of musical chairs, the voters had a chance to meet the candidates in a more intimate setting and the candidates got a chance to line up potential supporters and volunteers for their campaigns — a match made in heaven for a political candidate.
“It was spectacular. You don’t get opportunities like that very often,” said 11th District congressional candidate Haley Stevens, a Birmingham Democrat.
And for Joe McCauley, a tentative match was made. Both he and his wife thought all the candidates were good and they would vote for any one of them before they’d support a Republican. But Birmingham businessman Dan Haberman had all the qualities they were seeking: electability, not too much of a scripted or polished politician and someone who seemed prepared for battle.
“You’re going to be in a dog fight and he’s been in business and not so much in politics,” McCauley said. “This has been a good way to get a feel for these people rather than have them all on stage being pelted with questions. I want to see them squirm a little bit.”
Candidates and voters are trying out different types of settings and approaches to try and figure out who best fits with their political points of view.
The Michigan Conservative Coalition has rented one of the movie theaters at Emagine in Novi for forums with the Republicans running for the 11th Congressional District and the 39th state House District.
In January, the theater was packed with more than 300 people for the first 11th Congressional District forum. Fewer showed up for the forum earlier this month, but the couple hundred who did show up still took full advantage of the comfy reclining seats along with buckets of popcorn and drinks to watch the show.
“We encourage people to put their chair back and relax,” said Marian Sheridan, a board member of the coalition. “But if we see too many people sleeping, we’re going to have to make some changes.”
And the Women’s March Michigan organization put together a screening of the documentary “RBG,” about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, at the Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township last weekend that featured a panel of women that included a three candidates for the state House before the movie and informal conversations afterward.
It was an inspirational moment for the couple of hundred people who attended, mostly because they were celebrating Bader Ginsberg, a feminist icon. But it also served an additional purpose for the upcoming election cycle, said Phoebe Hopps, president of the Women’s March Michigan.
“It’s an unconventional way to get to know a candidate and we need more of that. Not only are you learning about a platform, you’re learning about them as people,” she said. “And now, other candidates have been reaching out to us, saying that they want to do this in northern Michigan and central Michigan.”
It’s all a part of the wave of increased activism fueling this election cycle. And there’s more to come.
“People really enjoy these because you don’t have to pay $1,000 to have a plate of spaghetti at somebody’s house in order to meet a candidate,” Goldman said, noting Fems for Dems group is taking a page from members’ days as PTA moms for their next act.
They’ve adopted “SignUpGenius,” an online platform to coordinate campaign activities: running phone banks, writing post cards to neighbors and friends, organizing small groups of voters for lunches with candidates.
“We’ve activated women who have never done this in their life. And now we’ve just got to get everybody over the finish line.”